Is Myth Dead?
To anyone who winces at the thought of a story being just fiction, the relegation of myth to the status of untruth should appear unfortunate. The modern definition, “a commonly accepted but untrue belief,” is not at all what we mean when we say “myth” within this project. However, the common definition tacitly defines a predominant myth of our times.
The value that myth provides is demonstrated in the fact that it has been with us since the birth of civilization. In fact, it is because of myth that we were able to birth civilizations. The myths, art, and religions of antiquity sprung into existence together, and were a way for us to relate to one another as populations grew beyond small wandering tribes. The earliest artistic artifacts are religious, or is it the other way around? It is hard to say. Myth and art, still nearly inseparable terms, provide a distorted mirror for us to regard ourselves in. We see ourselves in a new light, the best artists showing us existential truths through the distortion or even complete abandonment of empirical truths. Thus artists, and the myths they weave from their own lives, direct our eyes inward, both as individuals and as a culture, in a new way.
It is a self evident fact that myths speak to our humanity. They convey meaning. This was clear to me from an early age. As a youth I remember staring at the television in befuddlement as documentaries would attempt to discover the supposed “historic truth” of a myth. Did giants actually walk the Earth before the time of King Arthur’s court? How did Noah manage to get every species of animal aboard a single ship? These are the wrong questions to ask, and for the wrong reasons. Myths speak to the narrative, the qualitative, to the side of us which quite simply need stories and images, both grand and mundane, for us to relate ourselves to. It can provide psychological nourishment, and cultures that are devoid of the ability to distinguish myth from literal truth suffer for it. Such a thing could hardly be called a culture at all.
If you bear with us a moment in the premise that myth is something vital to our nature, then an absence of it, or more accurately, an absence of the ability to recognize it, would be a deep cultural and existential crisis. A quick glance at current events makes it clear that we are in just such a position, even though no solid connection between the two has yet been drawn. This is a feeling that I experienced strongly as I passed through adolescence, and I discovered that it was something many others were feeling, though few were inclined to voice it. I tried to convey this in my first novel, Join My Cult!,
Spiritual, cultural apocalypse is much more subtle than mushroom clouds, fallout, and radiation burns. People can deny it. No statistics can prove it. The only evidence we have is a feeling of profound loss, and hope for a future that does not reduce the qualitative values of life to quantities, and for companions to share these stories with so that they can have value, and pass on to our children in the next world.
Apocalypse literally means “lifting the veil.” (Greek: Apokálypsis.) I’m using the more modern version, but maybe not without a hint of the possibility for great transformation in times of uncertainty and turmoil. Lurking in even the most mundane hearts lies the possibility for transformation, however distant. The symbolism of the Blasted Tower in the Major Arcana of the traditional Tarot deck reflects this idea: moments of revelations most often occur at the points when all previous expectations have been utterly destroyed. Emmanuel Kant even hints at this with his aesthetics which include the sublime. The sublime could be the beatific vision, but at the same time, it can include the powerful, horrific forces of nature and the psyche. This is apocalypse, and it is an idea closely linked with the sacred, as we will see moving forward.
Neil Stephenson’s novel Anathem deals with the modern crisis of the sacred as well. The following passage is especially relevant,
So I looked with fascination at those people in their mobes, and tried to fathom what it would be like. Thousands of years ago, the work that people did had been broken down into jobs that were the same each day, in organizations where people were interchangeable parts. All of the story had been bled out of their lives. That was how it had to be; it was how you got a productive economy. But it would be easy to see a will at work behind this: not exactly an evil will, but a selfish will. The people who’d made the system thus were jealous, not of money and not of power but of story. If their employees came home at day’s end with interesting stories to tell, it meant that something had gone wrong: a blackout, a strike, a spree killing. The Powers That Be would not suffer other to be in stories of their own unless they were fake stories that had been made up to motivate them.
An obvious conclusion of modernity is that we have no unifying myth, as Georges Bataille proposes1“If we state simply, for the sake of lucidity, that today’s man defines himself by his avidity for myth, and if we add that he defines himself also by the consciousness of not having the power to gain access to the possibility of creating a true myth, we have defined a sort of myth which is the absence of myth.” we live in a myth which is an absence of myth. Our world is a fast-paced, materialistically oriented, cultural melting pot, in which it seems that any need for mythology would quickly boil away. We are, at the same time, untethered from any common shared myth, so that the task of simply creating a new mono-myth that possess the collective imagination is generally less fruitful than the artist may hope, as Bataille himself discovered in his rather ill-conceived idea of re-instituting human sacrifice.2See the introduction to The Absence of Myth written by Michael Richardson.
Even amongst the ranks of those who are generally most sympathetic to the psychological value of myth, there has been increasing question of if myth has any place in our modern lives. For instance, Michael Vannoy Adams presented this material at the “Psyche and Imagination” conference of the International Association for Jungian Studies,
Recently, one Jungian, Wolfgang Giegerich, has argued that, at this stage in the history of consciousness, myth no longer has any psychological function… Ancient mythological figures, he contends, “do not suffice.” They are insufficient because, he says, “even though they may display certain formal similarities” to the modern situation, “they are incommensurable” with it. …Giegerich, however, maintains that the modern psychological situation is utterly without precedent, without parallel. It is so radically different — or, as he says, so logically different — from the ancient mythological situation that any similarity is merely formal and thus insignificant. Giegerich says that the modern situation has “fundamentally broken with myth as such, that is, with the entire level of consciousness on which truly mythic experience was feasible.”
The most obvious conclusion is often not the most poignant one. We do have myths, though they often exist in mediums not surrounded by the aura of the sacred. This will be demonstrated time and again throughout this work, as it is demonstrated in our daily lives if we know what to look for. Modern myths are so pervasive that they are nearly invisible. Those that are considered archaic, that is, they have ceased to function in the manner that they were meant to, become more apparent to us. We call our relics “myth,” but they are not. They are the myths that have died.
On its face it certainly feels more accurate to say that we have lost touch with an understanding of the sacred rather than with myth, though exactly what that means, and whether it is ultimately accurate, also remains to be explored. It is far more likely that we have lost a sense of the sacred, but we cannot as a race lose our myths — certainly not before such a point that we have no beliefs or culture whatsoever.
It is not easy to draw a distinction between myths that participate more in what we might consider the sacred, and those that do not. This is a crisis that I hinted at in Is Myth Dead? although I avoided confronting it directly for a reason. We cannot so easily separate myths from the sacred, nor can we extricate either of them from the biases of a specific culture, least of all the ones we are immersed in. Artistic movements such as the Surrealists did move in this direction. There was a general desire to rediscover, reconnect with some primal, sacred source.
Consider this quote from Bataille’s essay The Surrealist Religion,
Everything Breton has put forward―whether it concerns the quest for the sacred, the concern with myths, or rediscovering rituals similar to those of primitives―represents the exploration of the possibility we again discover, possibility in another sense; this time it is simply a question of exploring all that can be explored by man, it is a question of reconstituting all that was fundamental to man before human nature had been enslaved by the necessity for technical work.
It is easy to make this distinction, and feel a need to somehow return to a state of sacredness, real or imagined, which seems to have been stripped from or lives, from our very psychological beings, by the realities of global industrialization. Let’s resist the urge to see it as such a clear dialectic, and instead move forward under the supposition that we are exploring an ideological history through the unfolding of a select few of the legion of mythic ideas that differentiate the world now from the world four thousand years ago. A multiplicity of myths, not clear, opposed opposites. If new myths are born, re-tethered to something sacred, they must be brutally immediate, possessing unavoidable gravity, poignant, fragile, they must be anything but contrived, planned, and developed with the intention of bringing us the sacred. (She does not come to us on a platter. More likely, the platter will have your beating heart on it.)
For our purposes at the moment it should be enough to highlight that the sacred represents not a single idea, but rather an entire category of ideation — a world-view. It is a world-view that perceives the world manifest to our senses as itself symbolic of an invisible world. The history of civilization is, at one and the same time, the history of myth. Mircea Eliade explores this subject in The Sacred & The Profane,
By manifesting the sacred, any object becomes something else, yet it continues to be itself. A sacred stone remains a stone; apparently (or, more precisely, from the profane point of view), nothing distinguished it from all other stones. But for those to whom a stone reveals itself as sacred, its immediate reality is transmuted into a supernatural reality.
This conception of the sacred seems to demand the transcendent, the invention of the supernatural. This category is required for no other reason than to draw a contrast with the profane.
It stands to reason that everything is natural; even if the universe is unexplainable, it would still remain “natural.” Forgive the tautology: nature is what is. The distinction between “natural” and “supernatural” is only relevant, only meaningful, in the context of the profane when contrasted with the sacred. Needless to say, inventing the “supernatural,” a new category of being to house the sacred, creates its own slew of problems that must be dealt with, such as superstition.
In Eliade’s conception, and I believe it is a point well taken, a sacred object is so because it is a symbol, a link, with the archetype standing “behind” the physical, profane object. A sacred canoe is not just a canoe, it is “canoe,” or it is a canoe within the context of a specific myth pertaining to canoes, or the sacred river, etc.
This distinction also cuts across experiential boundaries. The sacred and profane show themselves not only in the perception of things but also in the perception of time. For instance during a sacred festival — a concept that we have mostly lost touch with in our purely profane holidays3All of the major holidays in the United States, for instance, are profane: means of re-enforcing consumer behavior or an excuse to drink. They borrow iconography, of course, most commonly from Christianity, many of those symbols themselves taken wholesale from Pagan sources. — one enters into the time before time, recapitulating the birth of the world, or some other mythological event which occurs outside of profane time. The phrase “time before time” is an odd approximation, a metaphor created from within the field of time. Sacred time and sacred objects do not truly stand “outside,” “behind,” or “before” their profane counterparts; they are distinguished as occupying two separate ontological categories simultaneously, and there may even be some kind of exchange or interplay between the two, as sacred festivals and rituals demonstrate.4This is to some extent shown in the distinction between kairos and chronos, the time of experience which stands on its own, divine or sacred time, perhaps even an “eternal” moment, and chronological time.
It is to that point, the crossroads of the sacred and profane, that this work is ultimately aimed; for it is in this intermediary zone that myth actually occurs. The constructed supernatural realm loops back into the otherwise inaccessible elements of our own being, as a piece of psychological sleight-of-hand that allows us to conditionally stake a claim in the ever-shifting, dark chaos that is nature itself, un-sculpted by human sensation, consideration, organization and expectation. The condition we must accept when engaging with myth is that we pretend the shadows on the wall, the image on the screen, or the entities in our dreams represent some type of reality.
The realm we call the sacred cannot be left to sociologists, even if … the use of this word has become questionable if we do not frame with reference to sociology. … Science always abstracts the object it studies from the totality of the world. … It might in turn be pointed out that the sacred can just as easily be envisaged on its own. … But a question remains: suppose that the sacred, far from being like the other objects of science, subject to separation, is defined as the exact opposite of abstract objects (things, tools, and clearly definable elements), precisely as the concrete totality itself is resistant to it.5ibid
It may come as a surprise to some that we are never too far from the trappings of mythology in our daily lives. They are in movies, books, our mutually created narratives on the Internet, even on television. They permeate our ideas about ourselves, our relation to the world, and our relationships with others. They can be insightful or vapid. The very drive for people to make complete fools of themselves on reality TV is also the attempt to fulfill a mythic need. To be famous is to be externally mythologized. The thing that many of us find so repellent about these trends in pop culture is the complete and utter lack of the sacred. Myth is not absent.
We relate with these stories differently than people who lived in a world before the computer, television or typewriter. There seems to be something different about how we experience stories, even though the analogy of campfire storytelling and Internet communication is occasionally drawn.6The Virtual Campfire: An Ethnography of Online Social Networking, Jennifer Ryan.
Modern myths of this nature often don’t strike their audiences as deeply because they are perceived as just stories, or movies. The lights come up in the theater and the illusion is dispelled. Or, more frequently nowadays, we lose attention entirely mid-stream and surf to another channel or web-page, to take another fragment into the bricolage of our wandering consciousness. In a capitalist society, myths too take on a capitalist bent. Further, they serve its ends. They are more readily consumed than engaged with, but this does not mean that they do not leave their mark. All of this hearkens back to the lack of the sacred, rather than of myth. The formative or even subliminal effect of the media we’re steeped in is hard to say, but certainly the multi-billion dollar industries of marketing and advertising would be useless if it was not far-reaching.7A note about characterization, and the usage of terms such as “capitalist society.” It should be obvious that, within the contexts we are beginning to explore, “capitalist society,” “existential philosophy,” “corporate culture,” and so on are all myth-structures that were at one point posed, and which have since been presupposed so frequently that they are taken for granted. Like any other myth, they may or may not relate to a series of facts, but more important the effects of the characterization is real. In other words, there are sufficient people that believe in such a thing as “capitalist society” as to make it worth talking about, even if, speaking very strictly, there may be no such thing. Even “culture” can be considered a myth in this sense. This applies equally to phrases like “world-view,” a term which has become fairly commonly even outside anthropological writing. Terms like this sometimes create more questions than they answer. What exactly does it mean? Is it a passive or active process? Can it be willfully changed, or is it provided fully-formed? We will attempt to engage with as many of these terms as possible, but there must be a level of approximation in using such terms, or else we would be footnoting every couple words, and the book in front of you would be thousands of pages long. Let us say that it could be either of these things, in different contexts, and move forward.
There are many examples of what could be considered modern myths embodied in media. Rather than saying that The Lord of the Rings is a modern myth, though clearly it is, it is more relevant to say that every piece of media available contains layer upon layer of myth. Any given myth is implicitly built upon other myths, and myths are used to make them readily accessible to us.
For instance, there are a variety of common myths which allow access to the viewership of a news broadcast with a particular political agenda. The broadcast can further establish or re-establish these myths, and build new ones, but it is already working upon certain expectations. So, you don’t find many polyamorous bisexuals watching Fox News in rapt attention. This is an example of myth acting both as amplification and sorting device.8Many rhetorical devices of modern news broadcasts utilize a knowledge of the power of mythology with startling effect, crippling the rational capacity of the audience with the use of a few well times key words and some ideological hand-waving. Fox News is most well known for this approach, but it is at its core a methodology without any inherent political stance. A “liberal agenda” is as easily served by this approach as any other. If you’re preaching to the choir, amplification both further indoctrinates and further excites the converts. Myths even affect our evolutionary selection processes, but that’ll have to wait.
In the case of the myths that resonate with the multitude on a level deeper than entertainment, the anxiety that underlies the wholesale exchange of the profane for the sacred can produce a nostalgic throwback to the “old time religion.” The mythic aura of a yesterday that never existed drives such cultural movements as we see demonstrated in the movie Jesus Camp, and this trend is evident in many revivalist and reactionary groups across the world, not just Christianity. It is also the basis of many American myths that sprang out of the 1950s, of idyllic family values, which reach from that time, and before, right up to the present.
This defensive reaction, to look backwards in times of chaos, cannot be restricted to one ideology. It is one of the forms of modern mythology that we most frequently encounter. As Samuel P. Huntington explores in his book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, the coming world conflicts will be driven along ideological and cultural fault lines, even if underlying motivational factors in some cases include more material concerns, such as territory or overburdened resources. In other words, even resource-driven conflicts are likely to be painted in ideological terms, especially in regard to the motivating force presented to the people who make up the backbone of any military force. The idea of the US as a “global peacekeeper” is such a myth as well, as much as the idea that jewels could be cut from the bellies of Muslims, a story ostensibly propagated during the third crusade.
In the Third Crusade, after Richard the Lion-Hearted captured Acre in 1191, he ordered 3,000 captives — many of them women and children — taken outside the city and slaughtered. Some were disemboweled in a search for swallowed gems.
The drive behind fanaticism, and fascism — which is an affliction not unlike fanaticism — is psychological, not material. William Reich explored this in The Mass Psychology of Fascism. Consider this, taken from a chapter appropriately named Ideology as a Material Force,
Those who followed … the revolutionary Left’s application of Marxism between 1917 and 1933 had to notice that it was restricted to the sphere of objective economic processes and government policies, but that it neither kept a close eye on nor comprehended the development and contradictions of the so-called ‘subjective factor’ of history, i.e., the ideology of the masses.
The extremists driving ideological conflicts are borrowing from mere echoes of myths originating thousands of years ago, catalyzing the existential fear, hate, or desire latent in a culture, and more pointedly, within the individuals that comprise that culture. Again borrowing from Reich’s study on fascism, or Deleuze and Guittari’s examination in Anti-Oedipus, the principles of personal psychology also control mass-psychology. The fascist of the state is the fascist within. This alchemy produces poisonous splinter factions, fundamentalist groups that cause many of the pathological habits our cultures otherwise exhibit, in concentrated form. The atrocities perpetrated by the State far exceed those any one individual could account for, but the will to those ends must be spread through a sufficient public body for any of them to occur.
Far from being an exception, these splinter groups have been responsible for much of the history of the 19th and 20th centuries that has made its way into the books, whether we are speaking of the rise and fall of Soviet communism, the second World War, or the ongoing strife in the Middle East.
Exploring politics or even religious ideology as the only lens to gaze at myth in modern forms is misleading. We want to look at the very mechanisms of myth, not how it manifests in just the relation of nations, or corporations, or individuals, or the religio-politics of previous eras. It is nevertheless worth noting that the mythologies utilized by these groups have all been re-purposed, whether we speak of the selective use of scripture by religious fundamentalists, or the more bizarre relationship between National Socialism and occultism, which underlined the rise of the Third Reich despite Hitler’s professed abhorrence for the occult. These fringe elements are at most times culturally inert, but have the potential to overcome the whole of a culture during crisis points, as the Nazis did after World War I.
However, myth as a whole cannot be considered a result of such use. Nor can myth be “killed,” in any event. It can be a healing, as well as destructive, force. But we’ve only given the most tentative glimpse at the many roles myth plays in our lives.
Excerpted from The Immanence of Myth (Weaponized Press), 2010. This edition slightly edited. Originally published at Modern Mythology.
Notes [ + ]
|1.||↑||“If we state simply, for the sake of lucidity, that today’s man defines himself by his avidity for myth, and if we add that he defines himself also by the consciousness of not having the power to gain access to the possibility of creating a true myth, we have defined a sort of myth which is the absence of myth.”|
|2.||↑||See the introduction to The Absence of Myth written by Michael Richardson.|
|3.||↑||All of the major holidays in the United States, for instance, are profane: means of re-enforcing consumer behavior or an excuse to drink. They borrow iconography, of course, most commonly from Christianity, many of those symbols themselves taken wholesale from Pagan sources.|
|4.||↑||This is to some extent shown in the distinction between kairos and chronos, the time of experience which stands on its own, divine or sacred time, perhaps even an “eternal” moment, and chronological time.|
|6.||↑||The Virtual Campfire: An Ethnography of Online Social Networking, Jennifer Ryan.|
|7.||↑||A note about characterization, and the usage of terms such as “capitalist society.” It should be obvious that, within the contexts we are beginning to explore, “capitalist society,” “existential philosophy,” “corporate culture,” and so on are all myth-structures that were at one point posed, and which have since been presupposed so frequently that they are taken for granted. Like any other myth, they may or may not relate to a series of facts, but more important the effects of the characterization is real. In other words, there are sufficient people that believe in such a thing as “capitalist society” as to make it worth talking about, even if, speaking very strictly, there may be no such thing. Even “culture” can be considered a myth in this sense. This applies equally to phrases like “world-view,” a term which has become fairly commonly even outside anthropological writing. Terms like this sometimes create more questions than they answer. What exactly does it mean? Is it a passive or active process? Can it be willfully changed, or is it provided fully-formed? We will attempt to engage with as many of these terms as possible, but there must be a level of approximation in using such terms, or else we would be footnoting every couple words, and the book in front of you would be thousands of pages long. Let us say that it could be either of these things, in different contexts, and move forward.|
|8.||↑||Many rhetorical devices of modern news broadcasts utilize a knowledge of the power of mythology with startling effect, crippling the rational capacity of the audience with the use of a few well times key words and some ideological hand-waving. Fox News is most well known for this approach, but it is at its core a methodology without any inherent political stance. A “liberal agenda” is as easily served by this approach as any other. If you’re preaching to the choir, amplification both further indoctrinates and further excites the converts.|